Warning: this week’s column is going to get ugly, and fast. We start with Choke, an adaptation of Chuck Palahniuk’s novel, which is also a love letter to its star, Sam Rockwell — one written in shit and cum (I told you). First-time writer and director Clark Gregg, an actor (recently in Iron Man and weekly on The New Adventures of Old Christine) is not the first to swoon for Rockwell, the character actor extraordinaire who makes uneven pictures worth the effort: Confessions of a Dangerous Mind, The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, and The Assassination of Jesse James (I doubt the rest of the title ever fit on a marquee) all benefit from his special madness. The general audience doesn’t get it: Outside of earlier, scene-stealing assignments in more successful Hollywood pictures like Galaxy Quest and The Green Mile, Rockwell is pretty much a flop indicator, a good actor whose presence virtually guarantees a kind word from critics, a look-see from his more dedicated fans, and a voyage to the bottom of the weekly grosses list, where he and Nicole Kidman often wave at each other.
Escape is possible — Robert Downey, Jr. may have come up for air for good — but Choke is unlikely to be it for Rockwell. And it’s partly his fault. The film is all Rockwell, all the time, and it gets tedious, like an iPod with only a few tunes to shuffle. I haven’t read the book, but the movie goes to black comedy extremes…not too extreme enough, though. A movie like Choke has to hit like a punch in the gut to make an impression, and this one pulls its punches. The shit and cum are implied. I never got the feeling that the R-rating was tested, or threatened, as it might have been in more transgressive hands.
Rockwell plays Victor Mancini, a bundle of quirks. A sex addict for whom treatment isn’t quite a deterrent, Victor has a mother complex, or rather, a complex mother, light-fingered Ida (Anjelica Huston, a different sort of grifter here). Ida is hospitalized, and her son provides for her care in two ways, first in a day job, as a terminally bored re-enactor at a colonial themed village, goofing off with best friend Denny (Brad William Henke) and making time with the corseted ladies. (Gregg is quite funny as their exasperated commandant.) Off duty, Victor runs a scam, pretending to choke on food at nice restaurants, thus giving the hoped-for wealthy patrons a chance to play Heimlich hero — then latching onto the good Samaritans for further favors, usually of the financial kind. Only Paige, Ida’s nurse (played, with her usual limpid understatement, by No Country for Old Men co-star Kelly Macdonald) sees some good in Victor, but she overshoots the mark, and may be loonier than any of the more strenuously crazy characters.
That’s the problem with Choke — the characters, and most of the performances, are stubbornly one-dimensional, stuck in overdrive, pushing, straining, for dirty laughs. But it’s too shy. The sex is pretty much zipless, with the actors, miming crazy passion, unconvincingly draped to preserve community standards or something. And Gregg, like many novice directors, doesn’t do enough to get the movie on its feet visually — Fight Club, the last Palahniuk book to be filmed, was crammed with visceral imagery, that enhanced the author’s machismo conceits. While making effective use of New Jersey locations (full disclosure: my cousin’s son, Brandon Tonner-Connolly, got his first big-screen credit as a set dresser on the film), Choke looks like TV, curiously, as cinematographer Tim Orr has worked so well with David Gordon Green on his pictures (including the Rockwell-starring Snow Angels). You go in hoping for the promised raunchy good time, and are let down, as the film goes flaccid with sentiment, and Rockwell goes down with another ship. Choke chokes.
Last October I went to a screening of Obscene, a documentary about Grove Press and Evergreen Review pioneer Barney Rosset, which is opening today. (My friend Rosemary Rotondi was its chief archival researcher; this is my week for acquaintances to be involved in dirty movies.) It’s a prosaic, talking heads kind of account, with some choice heads doing the talking: Co-directors Daniel O’Connor and Neil Ortenberg rounded up John Waters, Gore Vidal, and Erica Jong among others to chime in on Rosset’s taboo-busting support of the likes of Henry Miller and William S. Burroughs, and there is some priceless footage of Rosset sparring with Screw magazine publisher Al Goldstein on the pornographer’s Midnight Blue cable show. Mostly the camera is trained on the 86-year-old subject, who won and lost fortunes on high-risk, high-stakes literary and cinematic gambles that took him to the Supreme Court; his salad days wilted from multiple marriages and business acumen far more questionable than his taste, he lives a pensioner’s life in a New York walk-up, largely forgotten.
I liked the picture. And I especially like that it’s going into release now. Ordinarily I’d grumble about having to wait so long for such a worthwhile portrait to go into release, but this is perfect timing. When Sarah Palin was announced as John McCain’s vice presidential pick, an e-mail was quickly circulated about her book banning propensities, and I’m sure a few Grove authors were on her hit list. Make that alleged hit list — it turned out to be a phony, one that I had fallen for, and had posted on my blog. Rather than delete the entry, I added a disclaimer, saying that it felt true, and it does. That Palin explored the idea of banning books at her hometown library is a reprehensible fact, and Obscene is a potent reminder of the front-line battles fought to free our country from the intellectual infantilization Palin and her crowd represent.
Obscene is, however, no manifesto, and the better for it. Rosset isn’t Larry Flynt, but he’s no angel, either. He had his finger on the pulse of the counterculture and the avant-garde, publishing the Beats and Beckett, escorting Lady Chatterley’s Lover, Tropic of Cancer, and the eyebrow-raising Swedish film I Am Curious (Yellow) through the U.S. court system, and immortalizing Che Guevara on iconic posters. The last, seemingly the most innocuous of provocations, had the most serious repercussions: Grove Press’ offices were firebombed by outraged anti-Castro Cubans, with whispers of CIA involvement. Feminists weren’t too crazy about Grove, either (Jean Genet and Malcolm X shared shelf space with Victorian spanking porn, a profitable fetish for the imprint.) What we learn from Rosset’s ups and downs is that the fate of the First Amendment crusader is to be bedeviled by the right and the left, and on that score the publisher was an equal opportunity offender and a complete success.
Come November, Palin may or may not be become vice president, wingperson to the flailing McCain, who swiftboated his own integrity in choosing her. But come Nov. 19 Rosset will receive the 2008 Literarian Award for Outstanding Service to the American Literary Community from the National Book Foundation, and his memoirs are due to be published. He could tell Palin a thing or two about being an honorable citizen.
For more movie reviews and essays, visit Between Productions.